With the National Sports Collectors Convention going back to Chicago this week, we thought we would take a look at the 10 most collectible Chicago stars.
It’s not strictly a list of the most popular guys, although that certainly plays into it. Impact on the city and the market, long term interest and other factors are part of this very unscientific but hopefully fun list.
It’s tough to narrow it down to 10. We had to leave people like Tony Esposito, Stan Mikita, Patrick Kane, Mike Ditka, Mike Singletary, Brian Urlacher, Fergie Jenkins, Ron Santo and a few others for whom you could make a case. And while you may not agree with our selection of number 10a, how could we leave him off of any Chicago centric list?
10a. Harry Caray
No, Harry wasn’t an athlete, but whether it was at the National or one of the other major shows in Chicago back in the 1980s and 90s, I always had to do a double take when a dealer had an autographed Harry Caray item at his table. There was never a lot of Harry Caray merchandise available, but what was on the floor went quickly, and triggered many conversations.
I knew Harry was beloved just about everywhere in baseball, but hearing Cubs fans and baseball fans from all over share their favorite Caray memories always stuck with me. There are some signed 8x10s that are always on the show floor, and he did appear in a lot of regional and promotional Cubs sets.
The 1998 National in Chicago really sparked interest the longtime Cardinals, Sox and Cubs broadcaster. He had died suddenly in February of that year and was featured in the promotional set for the Cubs Fan Convention.
Since his passing 25 years ago, collectors may not go to a Chicago show looking for a Harry Caray item, but when they come across one, they can’t look away. Caray items are not an investible, but their demand is driven by memories and feelings. And for those of us who have been collecting since before the 1980s boom, that’s the reason why we began collecting in the first place.
10 Scottie Pippen
Although he was in Michael Jordan’s shadow throughout most of his career, Scottie Pippen was one of the greatest players in NBA history and a clear number two to Jordan on the greatest Bulls of all-time list.
Pippen was a part of all six Bulls championships in the 1990s. He was a seven-time all-star and an eight-time member of the NBA All-Defensive First Team. He averaged 16.1 points per game and 6.4 rebounds per game.
While Michael Jordan had a relationship with the Upper Deck Company during and after his career, Fleer signed Scottie Pippen as a spokesman for the 1992-3 season. Fleer included a Scottie Pippen Career Highlights set in its Ultra product.
The first 10 Pippen Career Highlights cards were inserted one per box in Fleer Ultra. Cards 11 and 12 were only available through wrapper redemption. As much as Michael Jordan dominated the hobby, the Pippen set, especially the redemption cards, was extremely popular at the 1993 National in Chicago.
9 Jonathan Toews
The Chicago Blackhawks Stanley Cup dynasty of the 2010s featured a few players who will forever be loved by Chicago sports fans. But the player most admired and most collected was 15-year captain Jonathan Toews. In 2008, he became the Blackhawks captain at the age of 20 years and 79 days. Only Sidney Crosby and Vincent Lecavalier had been named captain at a younger age. Since then, Connor McDavid and Gabriel Landeskog were named captains at a younger age than Toews.
Toews and teammate Patrick Kane led the Blackhawks to Stanley Cup championships in 2010, 2013 and 2015. Toews was a six-time all-star and also led Canada to a pair of Olympic Gold medals. Kane, who was traded to the New York Rangers last season, beat Toews for the Calder Trophy.
In 2010, the Blackhawks won their first Stanley Cup since 1961 and Toews was the winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy as Stanley Cup MVP.
Toews has rookie cards in the 2007-08 Upper Deck products, but was featured in In the Game hockey products as a junior the previous year.
8 Frank Thomas
Chicago, like New York and Los Angeles, has two MLB teams. The Yankees, Dodgers and Cubs have always been the most popular, with the Mets, Angels and White Sox being the “other team”.
First ballot Hall of Famer Frank Thomas helped change that in the 1990s.
The Big Hurt was one of a wave of stars that emerged in the early 1990s. He was big, he hit for average, he hit for power, and he drove in runs. Now that we are in the launch angle era and watch power hitters hit in the low .200s and strike out more than 100 times per year, Thomas was a pure hitter. He had a career .301 hitter with 521 home runs and 1,704 RBIs.
The emergence of Thomas coincided with the explosion in popularity of baseball cards. It also came at a time when the White Sox went back to their popular black and white uniforms. Thomas, Ken Griffey Jr. and Barry Bonds drove the hobby during that time.
Thomas also played clean. He advocated for steroid testing throughout his career. The numbers he put up were remarkable, and he apparently did it without the help of PEDs.
Donruss-Leaf hired Thomas as their baseball spokesman in the 1990s. The company was Chicago-based before Pinnacle purchased them and absorbed the trading card manufacturer in their Dallas operation. He is easily the most collectible White Sox player ever, and his popularity, especially his rookie cards, drove hobby sales in the 1990s throughout the country.
7 Gayle Sayers
His career was shortened because of injuries, but it was spectacular.
Gayle Sayers was the Bears’ first round draft choice in 1965. He had also been drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs of the AFL, but opted to paly in Chicago.
He set an NFL record as a rookie by scoring 22 touchdowns – 14 rushing, six receiving, one on a kick-off return and one on a punt return.
Sayers was the best running back of the time, though the Chicago Bears were not an overly competitive team, always hovering around the .500 mark or below.
Sayers led the NFL in rushing in 1966, but the following year he suffered a horrific knee injury. Without the technical advantages and techniques of scope surgeries that did not come around until a decade later, Sayers stood little chance of coming back to play again. He did, and he led the NFL in rushing yards in 1969 and was named NFL Comeback Player of the Year.
In 1970, he injured his other knee and played in only two games before having season-ending surgery. He attempted a comeback in 1971, but injured his ankle and was out for the season after two games. In 1972, he played one preseason game before retiring.
His record of six touchdowns in a game has been tied but not broken. He finished his career with 4,956 rushing yards in just 6 games.
Sayers was and still is beloved by fans, with his NSCC show autograph appearances drawing big crowds. His 1966 Philadelphia Gum rookie card is among the most popular of the era.
6 Dick Butkus
There are many Chicago collectors that would put Dick Butkus at number two, right behind Michael Jordan. Those of a certain age might put Butkus even ahead of MJ.
If you aren’t from Chicago, you have to go to a show to really experience how deep the love the love and respect there is locally for Butkus. He grew up in Chicago, he starred at the University of Illinois, and then he was drafted by the Bears and was the greatest and most imposing linebacker of his time.
In 1992, Deacon Jones was a guest of Topps at the National, and I got to have a lengthy chat with him at the end of the presser event that they held. Jones said something that always stuck with me when he was talking about the greatest players of his era.
“A lot of people wanted to hit someone so hard they would end up in the hospital,” he said. “Butkus wanted to hit someone so hard they would end up in the cemetery.”
Butkus was an eight-time Pro Bowl and was the heart and soul of Chicago. The people related to him, and they loved him.
Dick Butkus also loved the fans, and he was very hobby friendly in the 1990s. His website, dickbutkus.com, was one of the very first football fan websites. It included autographed merchandise, and still does. He had the foresight to use the internet to build a community of football fans and collectors.
He’s signed autographs for a variety of card company products over the years and his 1966 Philadelphia Gum rookie card is a classic and one of the most popular football cards ever made.
5 Bobby Hull
The Golden Jet was the greatest Chicago Blackhawks player of all time, and he was also the most popular player who ever wore a Blackhawks jersey.
Hull played for 15 seasons in Chicago before jumping to the WHA. With Chicago, he was a First Team All-Star 10 times and a Second Team All-Star twice. He won three Art Ross Trophies as the NHL scoring leader, and two Hart Trophies as NHL MVP.
He was the first player in NHL history to score more than 50 goals in a season – Maurice Richard and Bernie “Boom Boom” Geoffrion had both scored 50 in a season. He finished his career with 610 NHL goals, trailing only Gordie Howe. Hull, who wore numbers 7 and 16 as a rookie, switched to number 9 when it became available to a tribute to Howe, who was his boyhood hero.
Counting the WHA, Hull scored 903 goals.
In the hobby, Hull was perhaps the most visible and accessible star athlete from any sport. He was always at shows in Chicago and throughout North America. He loved meeting fans and chatting and telling stories. What made him special to fans in Chicago and throughout the NHL and WHA was that he always interacted when signing an autograph. Many athletes sign a photo or card, slide it to the collector, and then wait for the next one. Bobby Hull always engaged with the collector so that they left with a memory and experience, and not just a photo.
There was a dark side to Bobby Hull. There were domestic violence issues as well as problems with alcohol abuse. Those issues made him a polarizing figure. But to fans and collectors, he was always smiling, friendly and engaging.
There are more than 5,000 Bobby Hull cards and variations on the market, but his first collectible was in the BeeHive Photo promotion in his rookie season of 1957-58.
4 Ryne Sandberg
Before Michael Jordan arrived, when Chicago sports fans thought of number 23, they thought of Ryne Sandberg.
The legendary Cub actually arrived in a trade with the Philadelphia Phillies with Larry Bowa for shortstop Ivan DeJesus. The Cubs envisioned Sandberg to play in center field. He played third base before settling in at second.
He was the backbone of the 1984 Cubs that won the NL East, but lost the NLCS to the San Diego Padres. Sandberg had a breakout year, hitting .314 with 19 HR and 84 RBI while leading the Majors in triples and runs.
As the popularity of sports cards grew in the 1980s, Sandberg was easily the most popular and most collected member of the Cubs.
Sandberg’s rookie cards are in the 1983 Donruss, Fleer and Topps sets and he’s been a popular and engaging autograph signer over the years.
3 Ernie Banks
“Mr. Cub” is another beloved Chicago hero who had a smile and time for every fan he met.
Ernie Banks joined the Cubs in September, 1953 after spending two seasons with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues and also serving in the military for two years. He was runner up for the NL Rookie of the Year award in 1954, and then began a string of being named an NL All-Star 11 straight times. He played in 13 of 15 All-Star Games.
Overall, he was a 14 time All-Star, a two-time MVP, two-time NL home run and two-time RBI leader, and he hit 512 career home runs. He holds the record for playing the most games without a post-season appearance (2,528).
Banks items have been huge sellers for years. His autographs are like holy relics in Chicago, there will be stacks of his 1954 Topps rookie card sold at the National and scores of collectors have built a career collection of his time on cardboard.
2 Walter Payton
Walter Payton is considered by some to be the greatest football player of all time. Whether it’s Payton or Tom Brady or Sayers or Jim Brown, it doesn’t really matter. During his time, there was nobody else that could do the things on the field that he could do.
Payton was the NFL’s MVP and Man of the Year in 1977. He was a five-time First Team All-Pro and a three-time Second Team All-Pro. He was a nine-time Pro Bowler.
He finished his career with 16,726 yards and 110 rushing touchdowns. He added another 492 receptions for 4,538 receiving yards and 15 receiving TDs.
While the 1985 Bears were known mostly for their defense, Payton was still the engine of the team’s offence. He led the Bears in their championship season, as they beat the Patriots in Super Bowl XX.
Like Sandberg, Payton was a star in the years when the hobby was gaining momentum and the hobby boom began. Payton and Joe Montana drove the hobby during those years. But in Chicago, no football collector had a collection that did not have a Payton rookie card as a cornerstone.
Sadly, he died relatively young and those who secured an autograph can consider themselves fortunate.
1 Michael Jordan
There is absolutely no drum roll needed for this one. Michael Jordan is the most collectible basketball player ever. He is also the most collected athlete in the history of the hobby.
While Michael Jordan collectibles still dominate every sports card podcast and You Tube show as sales of his PSA 10 cards are often the topic of auction coverage, few really talk about what he did for the basketball card market.
When Jordan was drafted, the basketball card market was dead. Not even Larry Bird and Magic Johnson were big enough stars to entice Topps to continue producing cards.
Upstart Star made cards in the 1980s, but it wasn’t until Fleer picked up the license for the 1986-87 season that Jordan had a true pack pulled rookie card.
When Upper Deck entered the market, they leveraged their relationship with Jordan and turned basketball collecting from a fringe part of the hobby below baseball, hockey and football to a hot market that would be the first sport to take sports card collecting global. The company’s authenticated MJ autographs remain very popular.
As a player, Jordan was a six-time champion, winning MVP awards in the finals each year. He was a five-time MVP, a 14-time All-Star, a 10-time scoring champion, a nine-time member of the Frist Team All-Defensive Team, and a two-time NBA Slam Dunk champion.
But Jordan was more than that. He was part of pop culture throughout the world. Every kid in America wanted Air Jordan shoes. Chicago Bulls jerseys, jackets, hats and t-shirts became mainstream.
Even when he left to try baseball in the White Sox organization for a couple years, White Sox jersey and hat sales exploded.
There are a few athletes that are the most sought after in the world by collectors. Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Wayne Gretzky, Tom Brady and Michael Jordan stand out in a class by themselves. And at least in Chicago if not every else in the world, Jordan is at the head of that class.